I do vary in what I write down, with some selections of a more superficial nature like an awesome pair of shoes I just found on sale, or deeper things like my friends and family. But what I have found in doing this practice for a while now is that it doesn’t matter what I write down at all, and it doesn’t even matter what I remember in my head as things I’m grateful for. What it comes down to is how grateful I feel.
It’s a very different thing to make a list of things you’re grateful for as a cognitive exercise, and to truly feel grateful down to your bones. But it’s the latter which is really life-changing.
Obviously, the point of the gratitude list is to hopefully inspire the feelings of gratitude. After all, you need to conjure up the name and image of what you are grateful for in order to fully acknowledge it. But once you’ve got that, I think it’s worth a few minutes of truly connecting to what gratitude feels like in your body. For me, I immediately feel a “swelling” in my heart area (gratitude-induced thoracic edema?) The feeling expands in my chest and rises into my throat, as if I am on the verge of crying or laughing. That makes sense to me, as often the outward signs of our somatic emotions is either laughter or tears. Beyond that, I find myself smiling and feeling a loosening of my muscles all over. I take deeper breaths, my shoulders relax and quite often I even feel a jolt of energy like I just drank a cup of coffee. Being relaxed and energetic at the same time might seem paradoxical, but this is a common effect of balancing out our emotions. When we connect inwardly to those things that uplift us, our bodies can release tension that we have been unconsciously holding onto.
Knowing where you feel certain emotions within your body is very important. Your body often reacts to your emotions before you might even be consciously aware of them. This body map shows the different areas of the body that are implicated in different emotional states. Every cell in your body contains receptors on its surface that receives information based on your feelings, and we tend to feel certain emotions in different parts of the body. By mapping out where you feel emotions in your own body, you can begin to reinforce the positive effects of positive emotions, and minimize the negative effects of negative emotions. (Although I use the words positive and negative as it pertains to emotions, I don’t mean to call the positive ones “good”, and the negative ones “bad”. Negative emotions like anger, sadness and frustration have their uses and are healthful to experience, but when indulged in for too long or too frequently, are associated with prolonged stress states that eventually wear down the body through excess inflammation).
Because feeling gratitude on a daily basis is life-changing, I created a meditation to connect more deeply to where these feelings arise in the body.To create your own gratitude body map, choose a time and place where you can comfortably devote at least 15 uninterrupted minutes to this exercise. You will want to be physically comfortable, so make sure you aren’t wearing any restricted clothing, and keep a blanket nearby in case you get chilly. For women, I recommend removing your bra, especially if it contains underwire. You want to minimize external physical distractions or discomforts so that you can really focus your attention on what you are feeling internally. Draw an outline of your body on a piece of paper. You might want some colored pens, markers or pencils if you tend to be the type of person who visualizes emotions and energy in colors. Complete the following meditation exercise:
1. Find a comfortable seated position, preferably sitting upright with your feet on the floor or cross-legged. You can also lie down if you prefer.
2. Take three deep breaths to center yourself, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
3. Focus on one thing you are grateful for today. Pick something that is more concrete (for example, a pet or family member, rather than an abstract idea like being grateful for your awesome sense of humor).
4. Spend several minutes really visualizing in your mind’s eye this object of your gratitude with all of your five senses.
5. When you start to feel grateful, shift your focus to your own body. What region of your body captures your attention first?
6. Open your eyes, and mark on the body map where you feel this feeling and what it looks like. Use shapes or colors if they feel right to you.
7. Close your eyes, and now focus on this region of your body. If you need to, call up the image of what you are grateful for again.
8. Where does the feeling travel to next? Follow the feeling with your mind.
9. Open your eyes, and mark on the body map where the feeling moved to. Again, use colors and/or shapes if they feel right to you.
10. Continue this process until you sense you have completed your body map. You might want to add the date and make a note of what image you were focusing on.
This is a powerful exercise because it creates a multi-sensory experience of gratitude and provides ourselves with feedback. It fosters the mind-body connection, and allows for a more intuitive understanding of ourselves and how our emotions affect us. If you are up for a challenge, do this exercise daily for a week, and keep track of your body maps. See how they may change each day, or based on what image you are grateful for. I will be posting my gratitude body maps on instagram (#gratitudebodymap) starting today, so feel free to see what mine look like, as well as post your own!
And remember, as we (finally!) head into Spring…
“Gratitude is the fairest blossom, which springs from the Soul.” – Henry Ward Beecher